The Loneliest Christmas

snowdrift
Christmas, whether you celebrate Christ’s birth or not, is a time of the getting together of family and friends.

Encouraged, even demanded by the retail sector, it is a time of gift giving and gift giving is always portrayed as a family event with people arriving at someone’s front door laden with gifts or in someone’s living room with a room full of beloved and loving people.

Television is guilty of creating a feeling of everyone else is happy, everyone can afford to give and receive expensive gifts in houses that have huge rooms and fireplaces. These imaginary houses are perfect from both the outside and the inside. Everyone is healthy. Everyone is happy. Everyone is wealthy.

I walked through the toy section of Walmart yesterday. Part way through the tour, I thought this is insane. No one needs all this, or any of this. Out of the glittery boxes, the toys are nothing more than brightly painted bits of plastic. I then went to an exclusive Victoria store. Just inside the door there was a coffee table for seven thousand dollars. The perfect gift for one of those perfect houses in the advertisements. Who, I asked myself, buys seven thousand dollar coffee tables?

Since I don’t know, maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. Maybe I need to upscale myself.

There is no power more powerful than television to make people feel inferior. Show after show has apartments and houses that the characters in the show, in real life, couldn’t possibly afford. In Vancouver where tear-downs are being bought for 1.2 million and over, yup, you have to pay 1.2 million, tear down the current house and then build a new one, people are buying condos the size of walk-in closets. They are buying lane houses no bigger than a one car garage.

Wages have not kept up with prices. Mortgages in Vancouver are taking as much as eighty percent of the combined salaries of a husband and wife. Then there are car payments and food and clothes and dental work and one thousand dollar baby carriages. Credit card companies are charging over nineteen percent and people are taking out HELOCS so they can buy groceries.

“I saw it on TV. Not once but many times. People our age, driving a new car, going on exotic holidays, buying each other enormous gifts. What’s the matter with me? Why am I such a loser?” If this is how you feel, give your head a shake. Drowning in debt doesn’t make anyone a winner. The Magi may have brought expensive gifts for Christ but they were kings. They weren’t using a credit card to buy the frankincense, myrrh and gold. You don’t prove you love someone with your gifts.

Instead of buying like a king of ancient times, how about attending a Christmas service? There are free concerts. Christmas pot lucks work just fine. If the spirit of Christmas is giving, not getting, one can have a busy, productive Christmas, especially if the giving is the gift of including people so they aren’t lonely.

Times of celebration can be the loneliest times for people who are left out of the celebrating. There are a lot of people out there who don’t have family, who will be spending Christmas alone. For them an invitation to share Christmas dinner or to go look at Christmas lights with you or attend a concert, even if it is a school concert, will go a long way to making their Christmas a happy one. There is no joy like the joy of being included, to be part of someone’s festivities, to share a meal, to not be alone while everyone around you celebrates. You can give that to someone. Without maxing out your credit card.

When I was young, all my friends seemed to get married at the same time and, in a while, to have children at the same time. Now that I am old, many of those same friends are widows or widowers at the same time and not all of them have children nearby. Some are divorced. Some have a wife or husband in an institution. An invitation to share part of your Christmas can make the season joyful for them.

I always admired my father for what he did one Christmas. One of his seasonal working men was a terrible alcoholic. He got his pay cheque and drank it away. His temporary friends at the beer parlour helped him with that. He hadn’t saved anything to pay for room and board before the fishing began again and he took up residence in a caboose (a one room shack covered with building paper and tar paper, sometimes plywood) that sat on an old sled. The caboose was some distance outside of town at the back of the beach among a copse of poplar trees. There was always a large amount of drifting snow in that area. My father drove until the snow drifts stopped him, then walked over the drifts, carrying a bag of food and a twenty-six of whiskey.

He couldn’t find the caboose until he saw a chimney pipe sticking up through the snow. He then discovered a beaten down track and followed it to the caboose. He knocked and was let in. It was one room, one chair, one bunk, some wooden fish boxes for cupboards, a tin stove, some firewood, a lamp. There was a small window that let in light and when it wasn’t covered in frost, a view of the vast surface of ice that went all the way to the horizon. It would have been hard to have found a lonelier place

My mother had packed up some butter tarts, some shortbread cookies, some Christmas cake, a meal of turkey and vegetables.

Gunnar wouldn’t leave his lonely snow driven place. My father and he talked for a while, then my father left and Gunnar, we’ll say he was called Gunnar, spent the night alone with the snow and wind and his thoughts.

Some people asked my father, why did you take a bottle of whiskey along with the food. My father’s reply was that it was the gift Gunnar wanted. It wasn’t up to my father to judge what he should or shouldn’t have.

I’ve thought of Gunnar often when I’ve felt lonely, when, for a period of time, because of circumstances, fate, ill luck, I found myself alone when others joined together to celebrate. I’ve comforted myself by thinking of that cold winter night with the wind blowing, the snow drifting, a man alone in a caboose and saying to myself this temporary moment I’m going through isn’t so bad.

We need others, we need community. Condo towers, suburbia, cities, apartments, poverty, illness, old age, death of a partner, a host of things work against community. Small acts of kindness, especially at special times like Christmas help restore it.

The Caragana Hedge

When I was a boy, now more than half a century ago, there was a lot of snow. When I’ve said that, I’ve had people say but, Bill, you were a lot shorter then. However, I have markers from that time, the most obvious one being the caragana hedge that grew along the front of the yard. The hedge grew well over my head. In summer, it was clothed in green leaves and when the yellow blooms were out, it was abuzz with bumble bees gathering nectar. I know the nectar was sweet because we plucked the flowers and tasted the nectar. Occasionally, the hedge hid a sparrow’s nest with tiny eggs.

In fall, the leaves turned yellow and fell off the hedge. When the wind blew down from Hudson Bay, driving bitter rain, then snow, the orioles and robins fled south (sensible birds that they were) the caragana hedge grew dark, gathered shadows. Nearby, the mountain ash, planted close to the front door to bring good luck, drooped with clusters of red berries.

Slowly, slowly, as snow fell, as it stopped melting during the day, it began piling up, and the caragana hedge now collected the beginning of drifts. The wind swept the snow over open fields, along Third Avenue, filled the ditches, piled snow against cottages and trees.

Although I earned a quarter or even fifty cents for shoveling snow from people’s sidewalks, no one shoveled the public walk in front of the caragana hedge, the walk that led to school, to Centre Street with its grocery store and post office. People walked where the sidewalk had been, fences and hedges, their guide. They wore a trail on top of the drifts but still the drifts grew until they overreached of the caragana hedge and only a few dark ends revealed where the hedge of summer housed its bees and birds and butterflies. We drank no nectar as the wind whirled snow around us. The mountain ash still held clusters of berries topped with crowns of snow and the occasional small bird would bravely venture out and sit there, dining on frozen berries.

There are no days to match the days during a Manitoba winter when the wind drops, the sky is pale blue, the sun, although weakened, is bright and the snow reflecting the sun dazzles the eyes.

It is these days–the days of skating on the glare ice of Lake Winnipeg, sledding, snowshoeing, chasing a soccer ball over the field–that released us from the house into the blue and white world of friendly winter that we waited for at the window. Days spent playing road hockey, often with frozen horse turds, for horses still pulled sleighs to town  from farms to the west. Our goals were blocks of firewood, our sticks patched together from ones that had been broken during a hockey game and thrown over the boards. These were days when we went back inside, red cheeked and ravenous, pulling off moccasins and heavy jackets and pants, ready for soup and sandwiches, for peanut butter cookies, for steaming mugs of cocoa.

These days released us from days of bitter cold and wind, when ice formed on the windows and I hunched deep inside my parka as I trudged along the road to the train station to wait for the daily newspaper. In summer, I carried the papers in a canvas bag over my shoulder or in the basket of my bike but now, my head covered in a leather helmet with ear flaps tied tight under my chin, my face wrapped around with a red knitted scarf tied at the back of my head, my hands in gloves, inside mittens, my body layered with long wool underwear, with a pair of pants and then wool over pants, a shirt and sweater and over everything my parka. I towed a sledge behind me and on it, a box filled with newspapers. Often I struggled against hard, icy granules driven by a hard wind. Sometimes, I’d turn my back to the wind and walk backwards and, when I had to turn into the wind, I’d bend forward, my  head deep in my fringed hood.

The packed snow on the roads turned to ice and many times I slipped and slid and caught my balance but other times, I fell to one knee or onto my hands. Many homes never shovelled a path from the road to their gate and it meant wading through deep snow in the ditch, over the boulevard, awkwardly opening a gate because of my mittens, opening a storm door and putting the paper between the two doors, then shouting, “Paper.” , then clambering back out to my sleigh.

When I went out to deliver papers or walk the five blocks to the skating rink, I wrapped a wool scarf around my face to protect my lungs. I breathed into the scarf and it was soon thick with my frozen breath. When I got to my destination, I hung up the scarf  in the hope that the ice would melt and that the scarf would dry out before I had to put it back on for my return journey. That seldom happened and when I put it back on, it was still wet and the moment I went outside, the wet wool froze stiff

In recent years when I’ve  een in Manitoba in winter, I’ve driven through puddles in January, slogged through slush on city streets. Something like this was inconceivable during my childhood. The first time there was melting was in early spring when, during the day, the top of the snow would warm and would freeze at night so a fine glaze settled over the snow. The snow banks began to shrink and, for me, the progress of spring was the gradual reappearance of the caragana hedge until, finally, in late spring, all that was left of winter, were the stubborn, hard crusted small drifts that lingered in the hedge’s shade.

I have no idea what Victoria was like when I was a child. During my time here, 1974-present, there has been little winter. Occasionally, we  have blizzards, I got caught in one on Salt Spring Island shortly after the first time I went there to visit. I was trapped for four days. The power was out. It was cold, miserable, and by the end of the ordeal, I valued heat, light and hot water more than ever but it wasn’t Manitoba in winter with no heat, light or hot water.

It is not just that the weather is different but the landscape changes everything. Gimli is flat. Victoria is hilly, I now live on a ridge and the road down is steep. Even a small amount of snow or ice can create a dangerous, uncontrollable skid. Ice or snow appears and the city comes to a standstill. For two or three days after a snowtorm, the people revel in taking out toboggans and sleds that have sat unused in garages and basements for years.  They slide down the roads, in the parks, for wherever there are slopes, and they are endless,  the possibility of swooshing down, squealing, laughing, tipping over, having winter fun, creates images usually only seen on Christmas cards. Here, a snowfall is not about winter drudgery but a chance, once in a long while, to recreate Christmas scenes.

Here, people wrap their palm trees in sacking against the cold and drying wind. Here, we get drenching rains. Everything is wet during the winter. Instead of cold proof, clothes are water proof. Hypothermia is a problem. I cover my plants with mulch. As spring approaches and  the rains of winter ease, the temperature goes up and spring is  here with the sudden appearance of snowdrops. Patches of white flowers with their light green leaves, the snowdrops appear everywhere, in gardens, lawns, boulevards, in crevices, for flowers grow here rampant and then appear spring crocuses in clusters and the grape hyacinth in great swaths of colour. My first house came with a small tree that bloomed just after New Years every year, bright pink. No leaves. Just flowers flaming against the still dull yard. I worshipped it.

Palm trees here are a braggart’s tree. We are too far north for palms but in Victoria’s micro climates, protected from wind, they survive. People grow them as an act of defiance.  However, I prefer the Garry Oaks, the arbutus, the Douglas firs.  They do not defy the landscape.

Do I prefer the stately firs of Victoria to the dark spruce hunched against winter in Manitoba? Or the blue camas on the sunny slopes to the shy yellow lady slipper in its boggy shade? Why should I choose? Wherever I am, I hold the other in my memory.

The cargana hedge is gone now. They grow old, as we all do, and die. I thought caragana were immortal but they, too, come to an end. My memories survive, caragana hedge leafing out, its flowers blooming, shedding its leaves, turning dark with cold and disappearing beneath the snow only to appear again with the warming of the sun.

Perhaps, some people say, you exaggerate, winters were never so cold, the snow never so deep, the wind never so strong. There are photographs and records to prove them wrong, of course, those people not capable of understanding anything but their momentary experience. But for me, the best proof of all is my memory of that caragana hedge, higher than the gate, higher than my head, overtopped with drifted snow.